Confederate Statues Are Not The History That You Think They Are
With Confederate statues being protested against and sometimes removed throughout the US, the cry of “They’re erasing our history!” is returning as an all too familiar cacophony. Let’s set aside the fact that not a single person uses statues as their primary source of education on any subject beyond Sculpture 101. This claim is a veritable layer cake of gross misunderstanding about, not only the way that we record history, but also what the actual history of many of these statues is.
It’s important to understand when a lot of these monuments to literal traitors of the US were erected. Almost none of them are contemporaneous to the time that these men lived. They are, at least largely, towering symbols of The Jim Crow era.
Let’s start at the beginning to establish our timeline for these historical monoliths. The first (and most modest) handful of these erections sprouted up in 1866. Coincidentally, this was the inaugural year of the Ku Klux Klan, and just one year after The Union won the war.
Fast forward to around 1900. Many of the Confederate veterans were aging towards giving up the ghost, and their daughters wanted to honor them before they left this world forever. Hence The United Daughters of The Confederacy (UDC) was born. Not only did the UDC make impressive fundraising strides to ensure that they could litter the landscape with participation statues, but these heiresses to defeat also took on the school system in an unprecedented example of revisionist history in the US. Incidentally, this was also the beginning of Jim Crow Laws.
So, who’s Jim Crow, and what were his laws? Jim Crow was a name that derived from an absurdly cringy “comedy” routine that involved blackface, shitty dancing, outlandish racial stereotypes, and even worse dialogue. The laws that shared its namesake were equally humorless and nauseating to anyone with even a fraction of a sense of decency.
Jim Crow Laws refer to an era of oppression that affected black citizens in everything from voting rights to public transportation to housing. It’s the kind of blight on our history that none of the record number of statues propped up in that time could adequately portray. This is a convenient fact as none of these statues were designed to show that aspect of our history to begin with. But there was a whole new smattering of monuments that reminded the black community just what their role was meant to be in contemporary America. Subservient and submissive. Looming homages to an oppressive age that was much more easily executed back when secession cast the shadow of potential on the future. Before all hope of a white America was deracinated by the forces of freedom.
This crusade of installing temples to a history that never was carried on into the 1920s. At this point the statue christenings calmed, but the war on history was just ramping up.
The UDC was coming to revise our history books. To be fair, the clout that these ladies managed to obtain before they even had the right to vote is somewhat impressive. It also speaks volumes to the demonstrable history of race relations in America. The short version is that the UDC constructed the narrative of “The Lost Cause” which painted the Confederacy as freedom fighters. They also labeled textbooks that portrayed what is now accepted history as “Unjust to The South” with stamps that proclaimed that sentiment if the books portrayed the southern states as anything less than crusaders for a just cause. This approached proved to be so effective that it wasn’t until last year that many Texas students were taught that slavery was the primary reason for The Civil War.
The final wave of Confederate fawning came in the 1960s. This flowed in the much more cost effective form of naming hundreds of schools after Robert E. Lee and other notable figures of the traitorous and losing end of The Civil War. In an unbelievable historic coincidence, this was also the start of the Civil Rights Movement. Talk about timing!
The apparent fact of the matter is that every time, to this point, that there’s been a black uprising in this country, the counterstrike has come in the form of a typhoon of Confederate sensationalism. White money and gentile pearl-clutching throws on the mask of historic preservation, conveniently disregarding the existence of the written word, and all of the sudden we’re having a debate about whether or not the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest belongs in the halls of a Tennessee courthouse.
These statues of fallen traitors absolutely represent a part of US history. The problem is that the statues themselves represent a history that we’ve never been taught. The history of intimidation, oppression, and equality with restriction via pigment that has led us to our present day.
Context matters. Walking past a twelve foot tall stone likeness of a tyrant every time you head to 711 is not the correct application of that context. If the United Daughters of the Confederacy are truly concerned about historical preservation, then a museum seems like just the thing! Perhaps they could build The Museum of Eventual American Self-Awareness, and we could move the statues there. We’d have a Confederacy wing to honor the four years of imagined heritage that that era portends, surrounded by the barbed wire from Japanese Internment Camps, all exiting through the Trail of Tears Hall of Shame where security drags you out over sharp rocks and stagnate water. A real exercise in American history.